Reinforcement for Initiating Exercise Habits

Woman stretching on beach

Initiating an exercise routine can be tough, especially if you are not a natural athlete. Sticking with the habit is even tougher as work and other commitments take over your life. Reinforcement for staying the path, otherwise known as a reward system, might help you get to the point where exercise is just a normal part of your day.

Internal Rewards

Internal rewards are the intangible, invisible kinds of reinforcement that only you know about. After meeting an exercise goal or just having completed a workout, sit quietly and reflect on your accomplishments. Congratulate yourself because you walked two miles without pain. Perhaps you noticed how good you felt after swimming laps, and you like the feeling. The scale might be showing you a low number you have not seen for awhile, making you happy about your new exercise habits. Also called positive self-talk, this type of reinforcement can be your private reward system, unless you choose to express your joy to someone else.

External Rewards

External rewards for initiating and maintaining exercise habits are as varied as the colors the eye can see. The idea behind external rewards is to give yourself a treat after you have reached a workout goal. The reinforcement could be shopping for a desired item or eating a small serving of a food that you have sworn off because you want to live healthier. This type of reinforcement gives you something tangible to show for your hard work. You can also tailor this type of reinforcement system to goals of different levels. For example, you might treat yourself to a new song on your MP3 player after working out three times each week, but after three months of continuing the habit, you will buy yourself the new MP3 model you've been eyeing.

Negative Reinforcement

Negative reinforcement is punishing yourself for something, in this case not sticking to the exercise habits you initiated. Negative reinforcement can work as a motivational tool if the price is right. A selection of Boston area gyms participated in a 2011 pilot program that charges a fee for each time members do not use their gym membership, reports a article. Do the same thing at home by putting a dollar in a jar each time you choose to sit on the sidelines. Once you have resumed your healthy exercise habits, use the money to buy your external reward. If money is not a motivational factor, deny yourself screen time on your television or computer until you have worked out.

Setting Goals

Set goals that are realistic when initiating an exercise program. People who are new to exercise may not be able to physically walk for more than five or 10 minutes at a time. Start with the expectation that you will exercise for 10 minutes every other day. After a week, you can reward yourself with a small treat, such as a half hour to read or one song download. As you grow stronger, increase both your exercise time and the length of time in which you are expected to work out before you get a reward.